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Learning 'why' of preservation With historic status eyed for Falls district, benefits to be outlined

The Historic Preservation Commission wants to educate lawmakers and residents about the economic benefits of local historic districts as it plans to seek the designation for a downtown neighborhood.

A workshop will be held at 5 p.m. May 16 in City Hall for the public to learn about tax credits and other financial help for property owners and a discussion of how special districts can attract economic development. It will be led by commission Chairman Thomas Yots and his son Jason, a Buffalo lawyer in the firm Cannon Heyman & Weiss who specializes in historic preservation law.

"We're just going to try to get residents comfortable in understanding the benefits of historic designation both economically and as a way of protecting the neighborhood," Thomas Yots said. "If we can show it doesn't hurt the neighborhood or the neighbors in any way, we think there will be support."

In fact, it was the residents and neighbors of the proposed historic district -- which would be bounded by Cedar Avenue and Main and Fourth streets -- who asked the commission to work on the plan.

The 22-acre area -- which has not been named but is referred to as the Schoellkopf or Park Place district -- features at least 35 structures that were built in the 1800s, including some pre-Civil War workers' cottages.

A local historic district, which requires City Council approval, would protect historic buildings from demolition, and exterior changes that require a building permit would also have to go through the commission.

The commission and the city's Planning Department have been working on the plan for more than a year and held a public hearing last week where support and concern were aired.

Marti Blazick, a member of First Church of Christ, Scientist, at 650 Park Place, wants the historic district to be approved because she said her small congregation needs the grants that would be available.

"The building just needs a lot of work, and this is our hope, to get the financial grants and get it done," she said.

City Senior Planner Thomas J. DeSantis spoke in favor of moving forward with the proposal.

"We're at the point of having our very first historic district, and I believe this is a monumental undertaking," he said. "In the end, this and other moves for the preservation of architecture . . . are all a benefit to the community, and I wholeheartedly support it."

Judith and Tom Scheiri, who own three properties within the proposed district, are more wary of a new district but said they want to see it approved.

Judith Scheiri once owned the Coatsworth House, a well-known Victorian mansion in Buffalo, but said historic regulations caused her much financial trouble.

"Because I'm privately owned, there was nothing to help me," she said. "I put my heart and soul into that house, but I lost my house because I couldn't keep it up [under the historic guidelines]."

Commission members told the Scheiris that they plan to work with homeowners on ways to make historic renovation affordable.

The city has one local historic district entirely on the DeVeaux Woods State Park campus, but this proposal would be the first neighborhood district that could help preserve a distinct neighborhood in the city, according to commission members.

Blazick, a Lewiston resident, said she believes that the district would give property owners the courage to invest more in the upkeep of historic buildings because they know the neighborhood will maintain its character.

"I can't believe Niagara Falls doesn't already have something like this," she said. "These homes, you can't put money into them if you don't know what's going in next door."

e-mail: gfranklin@buffnews.com

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